Consolidation proceeds amid lawsuit threats

(May 21, 2004) - (Little Rock-AP) -- Hearings to merge 57 small Arkansas school districts are scheduled to end next week. But dissatisfaction among rural Arkansans will likely linger over a new state law requiring districts with fewer than 350 students to be consolidated. Jimmy Cunningham, president of the Arkansas Rural Educators Association, says the group is working on a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state that could be filed within the next two weeks. And the tiny mostly black Lake View School District, which was ordered by the state Board of Education to consolidate with the nearby largely white Barton-Lexa, also says it may sue. Lake View's 1992 lawsuit against the state led to a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling ordering legislators to bring the state's failing education system up to a constitutional standard. Cunningham claims that the state hasn't done enough to meet the ruling and that consolidation isn't the answer to Arkansas' education problems. Governor Huckabee and other consolidation supporters say consolidation is the best way to save money, trim bureaucracy and increase high school course offerings. A lawyer for Huckabee yesterday told the Supreme Court that the state needs to consolidate more schools.